And mum bought seaweed

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Sunday 17: An exciting, tiring and long 10-hour plane journey. We were met at the airport by Helen (Hyekyung Shin), who was to be our guide for the week, and Mr Hong, our driver. We were driven to our deluxe hotel, The Koreana in central Seoul. We had a delicious meal and then went to bed.Couldn't sleep - my first experience of jet lag.

Monday 18: Huge buffet-style breakfast at the hotel, which my mum took full advantage of - having everything from bacon and eggs to seaweed!

We were taken to see the beautiful Kyongbok Palace, once the home of the Choson dynasty, Korea's royal family. With Helen's perfect English, we learnt a lot about its sad history and how many of its old buildings were destroyed when the Japanese colonised Korea (between 1910 and 1945). They had to be rebuilt. We then looked around the National Folk Museum, where we were swamped with kindergarten kids wanting my autograph!

I am a vegetarian, so Helen took us to an amazing Buddhist vegetarian restaurant for lunch where we were served 15 dishes of delicious traditional temple food.

Tuesday 19: Visited Changdok Palace, another former royal residence with a fascinating history. Then we were taken to The Korea House, an exclusive traditional restaurant, for a lunch hosted by the executive director of the Korea Press Centre. Traditional Korean meals consist of about 15 dishes, which are all put on the table at the same time. In a meal you will always get rice, soup and kimchi (a dish made of fermented cabbage and hot chilli paste). Kimchi is veryI interesting!

Afterwards we went for a tour along the Han river.

Wednesday 20: An early start for Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone, South Korea's border with the Communist north, less than two hours' drive away. Because of the tight security, ordinary Korean citizens who want to visit Panmunjom have to ask a year in advance, so we were very lucky to go there.

We were first given a briefing by an American soldier, part of the United Nations security force defending the South. We had to sign a declaration stating that we were entering at our own risk and wouldn't blame the South Korean government if we were shot! We were then given a tour.

After an educational and slightly scarey morning, we returned to Seoul and were taken up the Seoul tower (one of the world's tallest buildings) to look out on some spectacular scenery. The skyline is full of huge buildings, surrounded by beautiful mountains. Breathtaking.

Thursday 21: We were flown to Cheju Island, off the south coast of Korea,and met by another driver, Mr Kim, in a Jeep. We drove through the island to our hotel, Green Villa. Then we visited the local beach. Sun, sand, a blue sea and palm trees, just like a tropical island.

Friday 22: Helen and I went horse riding at a little stables, which was brilliant. We then stopped off at a deserted beach and me, my mum and Helen swam in our underwear in the Pacific Ocean. We were then flown back to Seoul.

Saturday 23: Mr Chung, the organiser of our week, took us out for lunch at the Korea Press Club. Helen invited us to attend her friend's wedding, which was held at the bridegroom's workplace, Samsung electronics. The wedding was very American, complete with fake smoke and a bubble machine!

Sunday 24: My mum and I were on our own to explore Seoul, so we set off for the giant Lotte Shopping Centre. I bought some gorgeous clothes and my mum bought seaweed!

Monday 25: Flew (with another guide, Julie) to Yosu airport on the south coast to be met by my pen pal, Lee Hyon-Ji and her mother. We stayed in Hyon-Ji's flat in Sunchon, a town just a short drive away. Most Koreans live in flats in huge apartment blocks. Lee Hyon-Ji's flat was quite small,but high tech - with 15 phones!

Tuesday 26: Visited Lee Hyon-Ji's all-girls school. It was definitely better equipped than my school in terms of computers, musical instruments etc, but felt much more regimental. At the school, everyone was staring at me because, unlike Seoul, not many Europeans visit Sunchon. Because of the language barrier, Hyon-Ji and I communicated more by smiles than words.

My mum and I then flew back to Cheju Island to spend the rest of our fortnight. While there we climbed the volcanic Mount Halla, the highest mountain in South Korea, in the centre of the island. Beautiful. We went sunbathing, looked around the island and met some really nice people.

My trip was definitely the holiday of a lifetime. We've made so many new friends, particlarly Helen, who we believe will stay a friend for life. All the Koreans we met were so kind, friendly and welcoming it was really touching.

We would love to go back. It's our dream to attend the 2002 World Cup. I hope that the winner of the next competition has as good a time as I did.

* For details of entering the 1998 essay contest, see page 8.

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